“You’re Too Smart to Become a Carpenter”
One hot afternoon this summer, I looked at an old friend for the last time, his head pillowed on the white fabric of his casket, his familiar glasses perched on his owlish nose. Despite the fact he’d lived to 85, and that there was nothing remotely tragic about his death, tears I could not stop welled out.
I met Werner in September, 1982. I’d quietly dropped out of Rutgers University that spring, reeling with negativity. I’d hated every minute there, hated the 9 to 5 suit and tie job and vinyl sided house in some anonymous New Jersey suburb that it was preparing me for.
All of my high school friends were in college or the military. The oldest of them had graduated from Rutgers that spring, landing a lucrative job writing software, whatever that was. I worked for his father that summer, scraping paint off an Italianate Victorian, working from a 40 ft. wooden ladder with a missing rung. Chips of lead paint stuck to my sweaty arms and in my nascent beard. My snot was white with paint dust.
For $600, I bought a rusting, 1973 Chevy 3/4 ton pickup with no bed, a 350 V-8, and a leaky 4 barrel carburetor. Armed with enthusiasm and ignorance about what I didn’t know, I rebuilt the carb and built a wooden bed on the truck. This beat anything I’d done in college. I stayed out most nights, drinking too much cheap beer and sleeping in a hayfield on a buddy’s farm in the truck bed I’d built. When the sun rose, I’d bathe in the farm’s pond, washing with Ivory soap (It floats!), and swimming through the swirls of mist. Then I’d go scrape lead paint, and if she was around, flirt with my boss’s daughter.
My mother worried.
It wasn’t a bad life, but I knew it wasn’t sustainable. There was something else I knew, something I’d mostly kept to myself. I wanted to be a carpenter. I just didn’t know how to do it, or even how to say it. Whenever I had mentioned it, my mother, teachers, guidance counselors, and peers all dismissed the idea.
“You’re too smart to be a carpenter.”
“Don’t waste yourself like that.”
“You should be a lawyer.”
“How will you afford a family?”
Facing down that prejudice was more than I’d been able to do. Even my boss, whose house’s lead-paint carapace I was removing and who made a good living as a plumber and electrician, told me to go back to college.
But I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. It was as if there was a carpenter inside me who simply had to come out. It was almost a physical sensation. I was as square a peg as ever tried to fit in the State University of New Jersey.
I had hedged about going back to college, not wanting to face the disapproval that would come with not returning. I’d been able to avoid the issue by calling the paint scraping a summer job, but at the end of August when my friends left their summer jobs and went back to college, I couldn’t fake any longer. I started looking at the want ads. One caught my eye – Woodworker wanted.
I called the number, which turned out to be for Warren Lumber, a local yard. The person who answered said to come in, drive ’round to the door shop in the back, and ask for Werner. I knocked off scraping paint a little early and went to the door shop. I was greeted by a middle-aged man with a German accent. Werner. He wasn’t friendly or unfriendly, just proper and businesslike. I felt he looked at me disapprovingly, but to this day I don’t know if that was rooted in my own insecurity or in his honest reaction to my unkempt hair, scraggly beard, and paint-chip covered clothes. Later on, I figured out that Werner’s high standards had led him to be cautious with new guys. A lot didn’t last.
Werner wasn’t looking for much – Someone who could read an order, miter casing legs on a radial arm saw, and accurately assemble trim packages for delivery. He had me read a tape measure and add together a couple of fractions, then sent me on my way with no sense of whether I had a shot at the job.
In the end, I got the job. In the three years I worked there, Werner taught me enough that I advanced to running the warehouse and operating the small custom-order section of the shop. Werner became my friend and mentor as well as my boss. And what a mentor! He’d apprenticed as a cabinet-maker in a traditional shop in Germany, then been drafted into the Wehrmacht in January, 1945. You can guess that ended badly. After surviving 4 years as a POW in a Soviet gulag, Werner made his way to the States, where he became a trim carpenter in the post-war housing boom, eventually moving inside to run the door shop.
When I figured I’d learned enough at the door shop to go out on my own, he remained a resource who helped me figure out the huge amount I didn’t know. And when Werner eventually retired, he even worked for me on occasion, keeping his hand in the game.
More than anyone, Werner taught me to be a carpenter. But more importantly, Werner confirmed that there is dignity and honor in working with one’s hands. Here was a man who’d quite literally been through hell, and who then came to a country whose language he didn’t speak where he made a good life. Werner married a wonderful woman and raised a fine family, all the while sweating and bleeding and freezing on construction sites. To me, as important as it was to learn how to get a tight miter and to hang a door, it was even more important how Werner validated my own vision. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could look at his life and say he’d wasted it by becoming a carpenter.
Werner gave me courage to become who I am. I’m not sure I’ve ever received a more important gift.